HSBC Champions turns up a new star for china
A former security guard from Xian has emerged as the next torch-bearer for the mainland after Zhang Xinjun's heroics against the world's best players in Shanghai.
Within a year of turning professional, 24-year-old Zhang elevated Chinese professional golf to a new and exciting level with his joint-13th place finish in the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Zhang finished on 10-under-par 278, tied with UBS Hong Kong Open champion Ian Poulter and former world number one Lee Westwood at the Sheshan International Golf Club and admitted to feeling 'like a star' as the galleries cheered.
No mainland player has ever finished in the top 20 in the six years the event has been staged.
Zhang bagged his best-ever pay day of US$87,000 - some of which he will use to buy presents for his parents - and soared nearly 300 points up the world rankings from 942 to 643.
Part of that prize money will be given to the China Golf Association, as Zhang is a member of the national squad. The association's backing has been instrumental in his rise from obscurity to newfound stardom, as he has been funded to travel to compete in tournaments in South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and even Britain. He will forsake a start in the lucrative Australian Open in Sydney this week to compete in a qualifying event in Shanghai for the China National Games, where he will represent Shaanxi, his home province.
'As a member of the national squad it is very important for Zhang to represent Shaanxi in the National Games qualifying event,' a Beijing-based golf consultant said yesterday. 'Should he win a medal in the National Games his province will receive additional funding from the central government, so there is a lot more at stake than simple pride.'
Zhang put his name in lights with his bogey-free, equal-best-of-the-day, eight-under 64 in the third round at Sheshan.
In danger of imploding in the final round, he redeemed himself with an eagle-birdie finish - much to the delight of the massive gallery.
'It's been a very good rookie year for me and I'm now planning to try for a Japanese tour card for next season,' Zhang said. 'I also plan to play in more European Tour events but for the long-term future I definitely want to play on the PGA Tour in the United States.'
Zhang's first encounter with golf was as a security guard at Xian International club. He soon swapped his guard's uniform for a caddie outfit and it was only then, in 2004, he began to play golf.
His pro career got off to a flying start with a joint first-place finish in the Volvo China Open qualifying event in Zhejiang province in March this year. Despite shooting one under par for the first two rounds of the China Open in Chengdu the following month, Zhang missed the cut along with triple major winner Padraig Harrington and defending champion Yang Yong-eun of Korea.
In June he placed joint fifth in the Nanshan China Masters, which earned him US$38,000. Zhang, who employs his brother as his caddie, closed out that event at nine under par, six shots better than China number one Liang Wenchong, with whom he will team up at the World Cup of Golf in Hainan in two weeks.
'I hope I can take my game to an even higher level for the World Cup in Hainan. My greatest hope is I perform well there,' he said.
Liang has long called for a new wave of professionals to stand up, and he speaks highly of his new partner. 'I first teamed up with Zhang at the Buddha Cup in 2008, and his swing, pace and feel for the ball is very impressive,' said Liang. 'He's a hard-working player, and more importantly he's dedicated towards learning and improving his game - he seems to have developed his own system. He has a bright future.'